More Chinese saying 'cheese' for cool-weather fondue

As autumn temperatures drop, the Chinese like to pamper themselves with hotpot to escape the chill.

In recent years, cheese fondue, a tradition from Switzerland of dipping bread and other foods in melted cheese, has become popular in Beijing, as more and more Chinese are falling for the delicious dish.

"In Switzerland, 'fondue' just means cheese fondue. It is the country's signature dish, like Peking duck (for China)," says Wang Wen'ge, executive chef with Cafe Swiss at Swissotel Beijing.

"Cheese fondue now is not so common in Beijing as in Switzerland, but is increasingly loved by Chinese people and expats."

Cheese fondue is similar to Chinese hotpot, but with a much simpler set of foods to dip into the pot, including bread and baby potatoes, he says.

The chef uses Emmental and Gruyere to make cheese fondue. The cheeses are among Switzerland's most expensive ones. After grating the cheeses, he tosses them into a pot that has been rubbed with garlic, and heats them with white wine and garlic. He stirs until the cheese melts, and then adds powdered red pepper and ground nutmeg, sometimes followed by grappa wine.

When the hotel cafe started to highlight cheese fondue on its menu in the 1990s - one of the earliest eateries providing cheese fondue in Beijing-the customers ordering the dish usually were Westerners, but now half of them are Chinese, according to Ye Si, marketing executive with the hotel.

Chef Wang, who has been working in the hotel since 1991 and witnessed the change, says many Chinese families now choose to spend a winter night in the cafe, enjoying cheese fondue.

The dish is very nutritious and good for warming up the body, the chef says, noting that he can eat cheese fondue on a winter day and then venture out into the chill for awhile only in short sleeves.

I visited the cafe on Friday for a late lunch, and observed that all of the customers there having their fondue were Chinese.

The cafe takes up a large dining area on the hotel's first floor, and I chose a window seat where I could enjoy the blue sky.

But what I liked even better was the simplicity of the cheese fondue, which fits right into the casual, comfortable and intimate dining atmosphere.

When my pot arrived, the cheese was still simmering over a flame, and was accompanied by bread cubes, pickled gherkins, baby potatoes and cherry tomatoes, to be dipped into the bubbly cheese with a long-handled fork. There was also air-dried beef and vegetable salad.

The chef suggested that I start with the salad made with vegetables, which included lettuce, corn, carrot, pepper and onion. The salad was crunchy and delicious, providing a nutritious mix of vitamins, minerals and fibers.

Its light flavors were a nice balance to the heavier flavor of the cheeses.

The air-dried beef, another signature import from Switzerland, was also very tasty.

I had a bite of cheese-dunked bread, and then just could not stop myself from having more. The bread cubes were soft and savory, with a tangy cheese bite that was very pleasant and appetizing.

The baby potatoes were not peeled, and were unexpectedly delicious after being enveloped with cheese.

I also liked the dunked gherkins, which were crisp, sour and suddenly savory with the cheese.

The chef says cheese fondue can be enjoyed any time during a day, but he suggests people not have too much of it in the evening, because the calorie load may cause discomfort and indigestion during the night.

If you go

Cafe Swiss
Opening Hours: 11:30 am to 2 pm, 6 to 9:30 pm.
Address: Swissotel Beijing, Hong Kong Macao Center, 2 Chaoyangmen Beidajie, Chaoyang district, Beijing.
Tel: 010-6553-2288, Ext 2127.